Saving the PlanetLeave a Comment
Last May at the St. Gallen Symposium I had an interesting conversation with Connie Hedegaard, formerly Minister for Environment and Minister for Climate and Energy in Denmark as well as European Commissioner for Climate Action. Unfortunately, there were a lot of things going on at the time and I never got to fully transcribe and publish the interview. „Better late than never“ might be a good motto for the current climate conference in Paris as well as for tardy journalists. Given the regained timeliness, I would like to, at least partially, serve justice to the reader as well as to Mrs. Hedegaard by sharing some of her insights on climate policy.Mrs. Hedegaard, you are a political conservative, yet you are very engaged on the topics of environmental protection and climate change, a rather atypical combination. How did it come so?
I was out of politics for 40 years and already had the portfolio of environment when the liberal-conservative government (elected in 2001) asked me to become minister for environment in 2004. They had cut back a lot on the environment and I wanted to stop that trend. However, to be clear, I don’t think there is any contradiction between being conservative and wanting to protect the environment. On the contrary, if you look at conservatism as a philosophy, taking care for future generations lies at the very heart of it. Conserving the environment should be a natural part of conservatism. So, ever since I have been a young politician back in the 1980s, I have thought that it would be extremely stupid ,if we are not serious about protecting the environment right of the center. Why on earth should being “green” be considered a socialist thing? A leftist system isn’t inherently better at taking care of the environment, just look at the Soviet Union or China.After your term as environment minister you became the first EU commissioner for Climate Change and were greatly involved in organising the UNCCC in Copenhagen in 2009. However, many European observers were disappointed with the results. What were the biggest obstacles hindering a greater international commitment to stop the climate change?
You could speculate all sorts of things, who was blocking what, who did not have enough political will and so on, but the big difference between Copenhagen and the upcoming Conference in Paris is that in 2009 China and the US both, consciously or unconsciously, could see that the other power would not move and therefore both came unprepared to actually move their own position. However, over the last years the pressure has mounted enormously on the Obama Administration as well as on China. When President Obama and President Xi Jinping came together in November 2014 and publicly acknowledged that their countries, as the two biggest emitters, have a special responsibility to stop climate change, this marked a turning point. Had those two really wanted to “play ball” in Kopenhagen the result could have been different.
While it goes without saying that many of us wanted more out of Copenhagen, we nevertheless achieved progress. In the run-up to Copenhagen Europe was basically alone in setting emissions targets, after Copenhagen 90 countries set domestic climate targets. In Copenhagen we also established the limit of two degrees celsius of global warming. 2013 was the first year ever in the history of mankind, where the newly installed energy capacity of renewables was greater than that of fossils. As far as I can see there is a profound change underway. Things are happening. However, the success criteria for Paris has to be that when that conference is over, it is still likely that the World will remain below the threshold of two degrees.
Europe has always been a force pushing towards more action on climate change. Do we simply have it easier than others to reduce emissions, because we already have high absolute levels of emission and little to no growth? What do you say to developing countries, who want their “chance at polluting the world” as well?
Of course nobody would ask India, who still has 400 Million people without access to electricity to do the same as Europe or the US. However, the world simply cannot tackle climate change, if we continue in the pattern of old UNFCCC talks, where many thought that only the developed countries should agree on binding goals, while developing countries, including China, should only do things voluntarily. From a European perspective the biggest achievement of the climate conference in Durban 2011 was to get rid of this firewall. Of course, we in the rich countries have to do more than developing countries, but all of us have a responsibility and all of us will have to pursue a low carbon development track.
Furthermore, it is not all that easy for Europe. Last year both Germany as well as Britain were able to reduce their carbon emissions significantly while growing in terms of GDP. The European Union has set the new goal of cutting emissions by 40% until 2030 through domestic action. That is a substantial contribution.Over the last years tensions between the West and Russia have increased. What effect on climate policy does the European dependence on Russian fossil fuels have?
Bulgaria, Slovakia, Rumania, all those countries who are most dependent on Russia, tend to also have the most inefficient energy consumption. Why? Because everytime Bulgaria wants to increase its energy efficiency, Putin lowers the gas price in order to undermine the effort. Energy independence was THE argument to bring countries more hesitant regarding climate change, as for example Poland, to agree on the 2030 emission goals. In a crisis year like 2012 we paid a huge economic bill of about 400 billion Euros net in Europe for our imported fossil fuels and about a third of that amount we sent to Russia. Last year due the situation in Eastern Europe a lot of people started to realize what the political costs of energy dependence are as well. The time to get the “boring stuff” like the interconnectors and the grid done, in order to move forward with the energy union, is now. If the Crimean crisis has not been a strong enough wake-up call for European leaders, I don’t know what could be.